Natural Gas and Pipeline Safety

Across B.C. and Canada, natural gas is transported to urban areas for cooking, heat and other domestic uses. Natural gas typically travels from its source to its destination by pipeline, as there are already many existing pipelines in B.C. In addition to being a common energy source for many Canadians, LNG is increasingly in demand in foreign markets, as other countries transition to cleaner energy. If proposed LNG export projects go ahead, we will need additional pipelines to bring the product to the coast where it can be shipped to foreign markets. Given this domestic and overseas LNG demand, it is paramount for us to understand pipeline safety.

Let’s examine the process of transporting LNG and look at the safety standards that are used when these pipelines are operational.

In order for the gas to be exported, it needs to be moved from its extraction and initial processing point to coastal B.C. for shipping. Natural gas is pressurized prior to pipeline transport and then put inside steel pipes that are coated to help prevent corrosion. Another way to prevent corrosion is through cathodic protection– a process where an electrical current is applied. Along the pipeline there are compressor stations powered by turbines, motors or engines that compress the gas to keep it moving. Pipelines also have valves along them to stop the flow of gas in the event that this would be necessary.

When the gas makes it to the coast, it generally arrives at a liquefaction plant, where it is converted into liquid form by being chilled. The liquid form of the gas is far more dense and takes up less space than the gas form, so it is convenient for shipping.

Pipelines are the safest way to transport energy products, and in Canada they have an excellent safety record. For example, in 2016, 1.3 billion barrels of product were moved through pipelines in Canada and 99.99% of the product travelled without incident. If an incident did occur, it may be for the following reasons: corrosion, unauthorized digging that causes damage, environmental incidents or equipment failure. Corrosion can be prevented through the methods outlined above and good practices and regulations can prevent most other incidents.

While the safety record in Canada is already excellent, the pipeline industry is trying to make pipelines even safer by developing new technologies. One tool that has proved very effective is the ‘smart pig’. Smart pigs are intelligent robotic devices that are put inside pipelines to evaluate the interior of the pipe. They can test pipe thickness and roundness, check for signs of corrosion, monitor rates of flow, measure pipeline pressure and detect very minor leaks.

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In addition to new technologies, the industry undertakes numerous pipeline operating safety precautions. These include aerial patrols, which are now sometimes done through the use of drones to ensure no construction activities take place too close to the pipeline, as well as routine inspections, maintenance and gas sampling to check for contaminants.

The government also has a role in ensuring safety. In Canada, pipelines are regulated by both the federal and provincial governments, with the National Energy Board overseeing pipelines that travel across provinces. In 2016, the Government of Canada passed the Pipeline Safety Act to strengthen the laws regulating pipelines. In Canada, companies operating pipelines are required to design safety, security, emergency and integrity management as well as environmental protection programs that are reviewed and audited by the National Energy Board. For example, all pipeline companies are required to prepare an emergency procedure manual and submit their manual to the National Energy Board. Moreover, all key emergency response information must be made public and emergency procedure manuals must be published on company websites.

Canada has also taken steps to ensure that pipeline companies are held accountable if there is a leak. The new Pipeline Safety Act that came into effect last year will ensure that polluters are held financially responsible for any costs and damages they cause. Under these new measures, all companies operating a pipeline will be required to demonstrate a minimum level of financial resources to ensure that they could respond quickly in the event of an incident. For companies operating major oil pipelines, this level will be set at $1 billion.

As new projects are proposed and put into the public eye, it’s in everyone’s best interest that safety standards are upheld. New pipelines will also benefit from the latest in safety and monitoring technology, where innovations like the ‘smart pig’ are used. With these standards in place, we can be sure that Canada’s pipeline safety record will continue to shine. This sets a positive example for resource development safety for other industries to follow.

Photo Credit: Canadian Energy Pipeline Association and NaturalGas.org